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Climb the Hill Advocates Action

Caldwell: “Climbers are the eyes and the ears of the mountains.”

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Honnold, Caldwell, DiGiulian, Hill. Over the past three years, Climb the Hill has had a consistently stellar guest list. But after last year’s event, Access Fund and the American Alpine Club, co-organizers, realized that the conversation had previously comprised a specific demographic, and should include the voices of other groups within the greater climbing community.

This year Climb the Hill, an annual advocacy gathering in Washington, D.C., focused on issues such as pushing back on the Trump administration’s “energy dominance” agenda, supporting the Restore Our Parks and Public Lands Act, funding the Land & Water Conservation Fund, and advocating for action on climate change. Concurrent with these efforts, a new initiative sought to utilize mentors like Bethany Lebewitz, the founder of Brown Girls Climb, returning from last year, to ensure equity and inclusion in policy discussions.

“There are a lot of recreational climbers whose voices are really important in the conversation about public land access, and we need to be sure to include their stories and experiences in our time here,” she told Rock and Ice.

The new Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) Task Force, of which she is a member, was formed to educate attendees on the issues faced by varied groups within the climbing community and to train them to advocate for communities of color, indigenous communities, LGBTQ+ communities, veterans, and others who are under-represented.

The JEDI Task Force. Top row: Shelma Jun, Pete Ward, Bethany Lebewitz, Kareemah Batts. Bottom row: Len Necefer, Maricela Rosales, Mikhail Martin, Taimur Ahmad. Photo: Access Fund.

For Lebewitz—and others—Climb the Hill is about much more than climbing access. “Environmental impact affects communities of color first, especially under-resourced communities of color,” Lebewitz said. “If I was a climber that wasn’t a person of color and didn’t understand what sort of problems low-income families or individuals were facing, I wouldn’t have been able to see that connection.

“We’re talking about people’s health, we’re talking about communities’ health,” she said. “If we advocate for green space for our climbing, we’re also advocating for green space for other communities to access. That conversation is an important one to communicate.”

Lebewitz requested that Rock and Ice acknowledge that Climb the Hill is taking place on the ancestral lands of several indigenous tribes, including the Anacostan (or Nacotchtank), Piscataway and Pamunkey peoples.

The fourth annual event, which this year took place September 18 to 20, was attended by about 60 climbers and reps. Athletes in attendance included Sasha DiGiulian, Quinn Brett, Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold, Mikhail Martin, Geoff Unger, Dylan Johnson, Madaleine Sorkin and Majka Burhardt. It also saw representatives from a host of organizations and companies, from Brothers of Climbing and Latino Outdoors to Patagonia, Inc., Brooklyn Boulders and Planet Granite (see full list of climbers and organizations below).

An AAC press release for the event stated: “According to Access Fund, nearly 60 percent of all rock climbing areas in the US are located on federally managed public land. The protection of these lands and the environment surrounding them is critical to the future of climbing and the safety of climbers.” Event organizers intend to “represent climbers by pursuing legislative and administrative action on recreation access and enhancement, energy development and leasing reform, funding for public land management agencies, recreation and conservation land designations, and climate change action.”

[Also Read Outdoor Athletes Testify in D.C. on Climate Change]

Tommy Caldwell came back for a third year after attending Climb the Hill in both 2017 and 2018. At his first event, he said, he felt like a “fish out of water,” nervous in his new role.

“Like anything else, you start to get used to it,” he said. “It goes from being sort of terrifying and painful to being maybe even a little fun.”

The first event opened his eyes to the voice that professional climbers could have in Washington, D.C., and the energy they could bring to that environment.

“Climbers are the eyes and the ears of the mountains. We can be the messengers,” he said in an interview with Rock and Ice last week. “We go back to these places year after year after year, so it’s a very intimate relationship. We really notice the changes.”

He credited the event with having jump-started his interest in advocacy work, and he is now an outspoken proponent of climate-change action. Last week, he was in D.C. with the Protect Our Winters Action Fund to testify at a hearing titled “The Fight to Save Winter: Pro Athletes for Climate Action,” organized by the Senate Democrats’ Special Committee on the Climate Crisis.

Climbers Alex Honnold, Sasha DiGiulian, Taimur Ahmad, Tommy Caldwell, Shelma Jun. Photo: the American Alpine Club.

Hilary Harris, who is on the board of Access Fund and is the founder and co-owner of EVO Rock + Fitness, explained that the attendees received training on relevant issues and legislation for their region. “It can be intimidating to be on the Hill,” she said. “There’s just a lot of information that we’re trying to talk about, and it can be overwhelming. But in the end you’re just having a conversation and trying to make a personal connection with these people.”

The element of personal connection is a driving force behind Climb the Hill: people who regularly spend time in the outdoors can relate personal experiences  that illustrate the issues they’re advocating for. The high profile of many attendees is a plus. Harris described a staffer who told her that he had just passed his gym lead test and that he was excited to meet Alex Honnold. “He’s experiencing climbing himself and is kind of in awe of the whole thing,” she said. “Climbers are sort of rock stars in a way—no pun intended.”

[Also Read Honnold, Hill, Caldwell, Hayes and More Descend on Capitol Hill]

Harris emphasized the importance of political action, whether through advocacy or voting. “The vote in this next year is so critical to our future, and I think historically, climbers are not that politically active. It’s not enough for us to go out and enjoy the resources that are there; we also need to show up and fight to protect those, especially as the sport gets more and more popular, and there are more and more users,” she said. “The world is run by those who show up.”

Climbers in attendance: Sasha DiGiulian, Quinn Brett, Tommy Caldwell, Alex Honnold, Bethany Lebewitz, Mikhail Martin, Maricela Rosales, Geoff Unger, Jessica Yang, Majka Burhardt, Aaron Mike, Dylan Johnson, Madaleine Sorkin.

Partner organizations and companies represented: AMGA, Brothers of Climbing, Red River Gorge Climbers, Brown Girls Climb, NOLS, Sending In Color, Latino Outdoors, Protect Our Winters, Adaptive Climbing Group, Brooklyn Boulders, Salt Lake Climbers’ Alliance, Outdoor Alliance, The Mountaineers, Outdoor Industry Association, Patagonia, Native Outdoors, Planet Granite, Earth Treks, EVO, AK Wilderness League.